The Breaks

The Missouri River Breaks of central Montana hold a unique beauty that is unsurpassed by any other land on earth. The Breaks, as they are affectionately called, are not like the prairie regions of Montana that are considerably more flat and can be tree-less for miles. They are also not mountainous like the western region of the state with high peaks and abundant trees that usually obstruct ones view. I often tell people that the Breaks are the happy medium of the two. High ridges covered in sage brush, juniper, grass, pine and fir trees may roll along for miles before they break off on the end and drop to a coulee, or the Missouri River that winds through the region, below. Thus, the name of the region came to be known as the Missouri River Breaks. In many places, bentonite hills that look like lumpy, rolled bread dough from a distance stand stark-white against a background of these ridges. Mica rocks glitter in the bentonite and will inspire prankster adults to convince the young or innocent that they are walking on a diamond mine. In many areas, sandstone rock cliffs protrude off the edges of the ridges or hills and expose quiet shades of orange, yellow and white. Sometimes, the soft rays of a Montana sunset will make these cliffs appear as though they are on fire and offer yet another contrast to the landscape.

Talk of a land of contrast! Many times over the years I’ve walked off a ridge that was arid and dry to the bottom of a coulee to find myself surrounded by fir trees looming above me so large that very little daylight streamed through their branches. In these deep coulees the dark air is heavy, damp and musty. Ferns and plants more commonly known in places like western Washington grow underfoot and the tree branches are often draped with heavy moss. Small pockets of water can be found, even in the driest of summers, and it is not uncommon to stumble upon a small spring. This is an important element for the wildlife and domestic livestock that are in the area. Water is priceless in this arid land and when the rains do come, there’s almost a sound of relief heard as the soil soaks up every drop sometimes turning it into a form of soup.

“Gumbo: not a soup you eat” is a common joke for the Breaks folk. In fact, I didn’t even know gumbo was a soup until I was in my early twenties and had met some people from Louisiana. I only knew it to be a substance of wonder, and one to be respected. When dry, this clay soil can be as hard as concrete. A 100 ton rock truck can drive across it and not cause a dent. However as soon as a rain storm hits, or the spring snow melts, this soil turns into a grey-brown, snotty goop that will make a 4-wheel drive pickup travelling at a snail’s pace slide into the ditch quicker than any sheet of ice. If packed into the wheel-wells of a vehicle when wet, and not cleaned out before it dries, it will turn back into concrete immobilizing the vehicle until chunks of it can be freed with a pry bar. Yes, I learned to admire and respect gumbo at a very young age because it was underfoot everywhere I travelled throughout the Breaks area where I grew up. There were many adventures in this place that was my backyard when I rode with Dad or my siblings around the country. The house was home base of course and from there we could easy hunt the mule deer that frequented the area by either taking a short drive or even walk a small distance. However, if the rains came or the snow melted, it was the gumbo that would keep us home-bound until the sun and wind dried the ground enough for us to venture away from the house.

Many adventures filled my childhood as I explored this region of Montana that is filled with beauty and history. My stomping grounds were primary located east of the small town of Winifred, west of Montana Highway 191, south of the Missouri River, and north of Knox Ridge Road. The area is central to the entire Missouri River Breaks region and known for its historical significance. In the late 1800s, famous outlaws including Kid Curry and the Sundance Kid, had a hide out on the north side of the Missouri River near the gold mining town of Zortman. Baker Monument, only 10 miles east of the ranch, was named for a lesser-known cattle rustler who was hung in the area by a posse that had chased him all the way from Miles City sometime in the same time period. Cow Island, an island on the river about 5 miles north-east of the ranch, is where Chief Joseph and his band of Nez Perce crossed the river in their flight to Canada to escape Indian reservation life in 1877. The route of Chief Joseph and his band is famous as they crossed through Romanstead Pass in the Judith Mountains and travelled towards the river to the crossing at Cow Island. Common sense would say due to the navigation of the land, this famous band of Indians would have trekked through the area I considered my back yard during my childhood.

I always felt that the house where I grew up sits just inside the boundary of the Breaks in this region of the area. The road from Winifred, where I went to school, winds 23 miles in a north-easterly direction through prairie lands that are checker-boarded with sage brush state sections and private sections filled with fields used to produce a variety of grain crops. The last quarter-mile of the road cuts between a large bentonite knob covered in trees that my sister and I named “Rattlesnake Butte” on the left and a gentle ridge covered with trees on the right. As the house comes into full view, the first real glimpse of the Breaks since leaving Winifred emerges in sight. Behind the house is a small alfalfa field that is divided from a sage brush flat by a barbed wire fence. Beyond the sage brush the dark evergreen trees begin and Murphy Coulee can be detected by the black, v-shaped cut that runs north on the surface of the landscape. It blends into Woodhawk Coulee that is also defined by v-shaped cuts that run in an east-west direction. Behind Woodhawk, the large bare hills of Middleton Ridge, and the scattered- tree-covered Sunshine Ridge, can be seen as the eyes stretch farther north until, finally, they land on the blue Bears Paw Mountains just south of Havre. This view was one of Mom’s favorites. It was no wonder why she and Dad decided this would be the place to build the house where they would live for the rest of their lives. When Mom died, Dad buried her on a hill above the house overlooking this same view.

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